For a long time I have deeply pondered the nature of imprisonment. As a child my family would sometimes take me on Sabbath mornings to one of the local prisons in a neighboring county, where we would talk with a couple of people who were in prison for crimes they had committed and who had claimed a changed life while in bars. One of the men had committed many crimes but was in prison for the statutory rape of a particularly seductive stepdaughter, and he seemed a bit embittered about how he suffered for his crime, when he could easily have been imprisoned for far more and far worse, had God not been merciful to him. The other man was in prison on a life sentence (with no parole) for a first degree murder conviction for a crime that should have been a second degree murder conviction given its lack of planning and its status as a “crime of passion” on a cheating spouse. He seemed to have accepted his fate and sought to make the best of it. While, thanks be to God (and no credit to me), I have never yet been a prisoner, I have often been deeply reflective on the subject of imprisonment, and on the fact that there are many different kinds of prisons, not all of them surrounded by wire and towers and fences.
It is probably not by coincidence that twice in my life I have lived particularly close to prisons. It is probably also not by coincidence that these times in my life I have felt the keenest my own lack of freedom. This world is full of oppression, and even being near a prison seems to exert a subtle sort of oppression that makes us keenly aware of the restraints we suffer in this present world, and in the threat that such freedom as we enjoy can be snuffed out in the blink of an eye should we make the wrong move, or upset the wrong person. This awareness has not made me cautious, but it has made me reflect deeply on the nature of imprisonment, especially considering the fact that I have had a couple of relatives who themselves were jailors, something I have always viewed with a great deal of concern (particularly in light of my awareness of the prisoner-jailor dynamic, as shown in the Zimbardo Experiments).
As it happens, I am just about finished (hopefully I will finish soon) a book about the prisoner of war experiences of the forgotten men of Guam. The casual and incessant brutality of their experience is something that deeply troubles me, not because the Japanese are the only people of the world capable of such great brutality (not by a country mile), but because people who are small and weak feel emboldened to commit great evils against the helpless and defenseless. And given the course of my own life, this is something that has always deeply troubled me given my own personal history. One can either choose to show one’s strength through self-control and service or through domination and oppression, and there is a stark divide between those choices. I find no pleasure in the suffering of others, even when they deserve it, and even though I am a fierce advocate of justice. I therefore find an extreme horror at those who sadistically enjoy making others suffer, and who then pervert that enjoyment by claiming it as a good for society as a whole.
We must recognize that not all prisons are physical ones. In fact, we should recognize that most people who end up imprisoned are prisoners in the mind and heart long before they are prisoners in the flesh. The body preserves the illusion of freedom long after its reality has faded away. Addicts are imprisoned to their drug of choice, their freedoms constrained by the hold that a given substance or activity has over them. White collar criminals are often imprisoned by their standard of living, their pride and greed constraining them to steal and defraud in order to keep up a facade of respectability that they cannot otherwise keep up. Many crimes of passion result because people feel imprisoned within co-dependent relationships, unable to let someone go free or unable to cope with the loss of a friend or family member or lover. A lack of education, and a lack of (perceived) options is also a prison that effects many people and that nudges them along the road to actions that eventually lead to their imprisonment. Imprisonment (and the resulting slavery) is merely the outward manifestation of our internal state that leads us to act in counterproductive ways.
We ought to be deeply sensitive to this. To some extent we are all prisoners on our earth, and we are often imprisoned by our hatreds and our narrow loyalties and worldviews. We have no cause to look down on others, seeing as we could easily be prisoners for our behavior should we choose to be loyal to God rather than the corrupt nations of mankind in times when that freedom is no longer tolerated and respected. Paul himself was a prisoner as the author of most of his epistles, a prisoner not because he was an evil man but because he could not dare be silent about Jesus Christ and His legitimate rule over the earth that He created. If the same evil times happen to us, let us be as faithful as he was, and as prepared to be free in our minds and spirits even if we are imprisoned in our bodies.